CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sharply disputed the findings of a Congressional report released Monday that criticized the league’s handling of a National Institutes of Health study to detect Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in living brains.
The report suggested the league intentionally tried to influence the NIH to remove Boston University researcher Dr. Robert Stern, who has criticized the league over its handling of the CTE issue, from the study. It also accused NFL adviser Dr. Richard Ellenbogen of reaching out to the NIH on behalf of the league to influence the direction of the research project.
“I take a much different position to that on several fronts,” Goodell said Tuesday when asked by a Newsday reporter about the Congressional report. “One is our commitment to medical research is well documented. We made a commitment to the NIH. It is normal practice to have discussions back and forth with the NIH. We have several members that are advisers on our committees — Betsy Nagel, Rich Ellenbogen — who have had experience with NIH or worked with NIH.
“It is very important to continue to have that kind of dialogue through appropriate channels, which our advisers have,” Goodell said. “That’s a standard practice. We have our commitment of $30 million to the NIH. We’re not pulling that back one bit. We continue to focus on things our advisers believe are important to study. Ultimately, it is the NIH’s decision.”
Goodell criticized the report for not contacting Ellenbogen over issues that concerned the lawmakers’ committee.
Ellenbogen, professor and chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Washington, wrote a letter to the committee, a copy of which was obtained by Newsday, and expressed outrage over not being contacted over his role in the NIH research. The letter was addressed to committee chairman Frank Pallone, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey.
“Yesterday a report from the minority staff of your committee was released to the media alleging that I and others participated in an effort to influence an NIH grant selection process,” Ellenbogen wrote.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, I was not afforded the simple opportunity to make this plain to your staff members, despite the fact that my contact information was provided to them and my willingness to engage with them on any question was made clear to them. I find this basic lack of fairness, combined with the disregard for the opinions and reputations of the medical professionals named in this report, to be unworthy of the important committee that you lead. At a minimum, I hope you can understand my profound objection to this maligning without so much as the courtesy of a direct question to me by your staff.”
Ellenbogen believes there “is a vital need for a longitudinal study that tracks the impact concussions have over many years. We need to better understand the long-term risks of traumatic brain injury. I made clear to the NIH that this should be a priority. The advancement of science and research in this field is of critical importance — and we must work together to understand what it is telling us and how we must adapt accordingly.”
Several NFL players have expressed through social media and interviews a growing mistrust for the league, particularly Goodell, over the direction of concussion research. Goodell acknowledged the need to “continue to find ways to make our game safer.” He added that the league needs to “make sure people understand the facts” about head trauma.
“We have to make the game safer for our players,” he said. “We’re not done with that yet. Whether it’s kids playing youth football, we have to make sure people understand the facts and that’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’re committed to do.”